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Animals and Language

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Animals and Language

Was Dr. Dolittle on to something? In the 1998 classic featuring Eddie Murphy, a scientist named Dr. Dolittle has a gift for talking to animals. He can understand them, and they can understand him. But is all of this science fiction? What does research tell us about whether or not other species can speak (or sign) and understand human language?

  • First, we will discuss animals and language learning.
  • Then, we will explore some examples of animal communication.
  • We will proceed by investigating if animals understand human language.
  • After this, we will get a better understanding of the differences between human and animal language.
  • Finally, we will uncover what psychologists say about animal language.

Animals and Language Learning

What is required for a species to be able to communicate? Many would say that the species must be able to think about someone thinking. This is a third-order belief and indicates a theory of mind.

Theory of mind: the ability to think about another's mental state, i.e., "I think that he thinks that I think".

A third-order belief: person A thinks that person B thinks about what person A thinks.

Animals with a theory of mind are capable of communication. Communication can be verbal, but it can also be in the form of gestures and other bodily movements or touches. Similar to humans, animals may use certain sounds or gestures to signal something to others. This could be a growl or roar that signals to others that there is a threat nearby.

Several monkey species are able to make different alarm cries to signal different predators. For example, a cough may signal an eagle, a chattering may signal a snake, and a barking call may signal a leopard.

Animal and human signaling are often instinctual or self-evident forms of communication. We don't have to be taught to scream when we are scared, it just comes naturally to us.

Animal Communication Examples

There are several examples of animal communication in nature. Let's list a few:

  • Bees' dances: Bees are known to communicate the location of food sources using complex "dances."

  • Whales' songs: During mating season, male humpback whales perform whale songs to aid sexual selection. Humpback whale songs are also used as feeding calls that can last between 5 to 10 seconds.

  • Prairie Dogs' alarms: Prarie dogs use different alarm calls that contain descriptive information about predators including their color, size, and traveling speed. These alarms signal different types of escape behaviors for different species of predators.

  • Caribbean Reef Squid's appearances: Squids are capable of communicating by manipulating their color, shape, and texture. For example, while performing mating rituals, squid use patterns, color, and flashing to communicate with one another.

Animal and Language, two humpback whales in ocean, StudySmarter

Male humpback wales perform songs to aid sexual selection, freepik.

Can Animals Understand Human Language?

To answer this question, it is important to indicate the difference between animal communication and animal language.

Animal communication: the process in which information is transferred from one animal to another in order to affect their immediate or future behavior.

Animal language: the modeling of human language in other animal behaviors and systems.

Parrots, hummingbirds, and songbirds may be able to mimic human language through vocal learning. Dogs can be trained to understand commands such as "sit" or "stay," but most dogs are simply responding to speech inflections rather than comprehending the meaning of the words. However, studies have shown that some dogs may, in fact, be able to understand a few words in the human language.

One pup named Chaser could understand over 1000 human words. She could learn the name of a toy and understand instructions regarding that toy, i.e., "fetch a doll" (Pilley, 2013).1

Nonhuman Primates

A lot of research has been directed toward determining whether nonhuman primates can learn human language.

In the late 1960s, psychologists Allen Gardner and Beatrix Gardner taught sign language to a young chimpanzee. Her name was Washoe and, by the end of her life, she was able to use 250 signs (Gardner, 2007).2

She was even able to make some creative combinations. She called a swan a "water bird" or an orange "apple-which-is-orange" (Rumbaugh, 1977).3 The most surprising finding with Washoe is that she later taught 68 signs to her "foster son," Loulis.

Another famous nonhuman primate is Kanzi. Kanzi was a bonobo who had 354 words in his vocabulary and was the first nonhuman primate to seemingly understand syntax in spoken English.

When asked for the first time to "make the dog bite the snake," Kanzi put the snake in the dog's mouth (Myers, 2018).4

Arguably the most famous nonhuman primate in the research of animal language was the western lowland gorilla named Koko.

She was able to learn more than 1,000 signs and could comprehend over 2,000 words from the English language.

The work researchers did with Koko helped contribute to the argument that some animals may, in fact, be able to learn the human language, at least to the level of a small child.

Animals and Language, black and white closeup of gorilla, StudySmarter
Lowland gorilla like Koko, Freepik.

Difference Between Human and Animal Language

Even in the cases where animals can learn some form of human language, there are differences between human and animal language and communication.

First, humans are unique in that we all possess a version of a gene that enables us to move and coordinate our lips, tongue, and vocal cords required for speech. Another major difference between human and animal language is that animals do not have the reasoning skills to understand syntax.

If you say to a toddler "you eat" and "eat you," they will understand the difference. A gorilla, who lacks the rules of syntax, will think the phrases have the same meaning.

As mentioned earlier, Kanzi was, reportedly, the first nonhuman primate to display an understanding of syntax. However, many researchers doubt the validity of those findings. Perhaps Kanzi didn't understand the request to "make the dog bite the snake." Maybe he learned through operant conditioning to give the response that would result in a reward. Human language also has a much larger selection of symbols that are substantially more complex than animal language.

Humans can have multiple sounds or gestures that signify one object and can even combine sounds or gestures to produce new symbols with different meanings. In contrast, nonhuman primates have a closed vocal system which means they cannot combine sounds to produce new symbols.

Here's a chart listing a few more differences between human language and animal language or communication:

Humans
Animals
Creativity
Humans can easily invent new words, i.e., supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.
Evolution is the only way animals change their signs.
Cultural Transmission
Human words must be learned and acquired culturally.
Animal communication is biological, and they are born with it. However, this is what makes the case of Washoe so extraordinary because she was able to teach her foster son words in sign language.
Displacement
Humans can talk about things that are not in their immediate environments. (i.e., you can talk about your brother even if he's not in the room).
Animal communication is only driven by stimuli in their immediate environment.
Arbitrariness
Human language can be symbolic, allowing us to preserve ideas or events.
Animal communication cannot be symbolic and, therefore, cannot capture ideas.
Metalinguistics
Humans can discuss language itself.
Animals are incapable of the abstract thinking required to talk about language.

Animal Language Psychology

There are several different views and beliefs in psychology regarding whether or not animals are actually capable of learning human language. Some will say that studies have proven that some animals, such as chimpanzees, are capable of learning human language. Others will say that other phenomena are at play and that animals cannot actually grasp the complexities of human language.

As impressive as these research findings maybe, what we know about psychological principles such as learning and human development puts it all into perspective.

Many researchers doubt the significance of nonhuman primates learning sign language. Some suggest that it is simply due to operant conditioning. This means that nonhuman primates simply learn which hand symbols lead to a reward or positive reinforcement, such as food or toys, and remain unaware of what the symbols truly mean.

Also, we know that even very young children who are just beginning to learn how to speak or sign can easily capture dozens of new words in their vocabulary each week, reaching more than 60,000 words by adulthood. On the other hand, although Koko learned more words in the American sign language than any animal in history, she only learned 1,000 words. And this was with great difficulty. Some researchers do not consider this evidence enough to say that Koko actually learned the human language and its complex grammar.

Finally, while most researchers do everything they can to create a non-biased research design, they are still humans at the end of the day. As humans, they can fall victim to what's called a perceptual set.

Perceptual set: our tendency to see what we want or expect to see.

Another common criticism of research on animal language is that perhaps the researchers were simply seeing what they wanted to see. Maybe Washoe wasn't calling an orange an "apple-that-is-orange." Maybe Washoe was simply confused, but the researchers' perceptual set led them to believe Washoe was finding a creative name for an orange.

In either case, these studies in animal language have taught researchers a lot about the uniqueness of human language and led to more questions being asked, which could lead to even more discoveries.

Other species and Language - Key takeaways

  • Theory of mind is the ability to think about another's mental state. Animals with a theory of mind are capable of communication.
  • Animal language specifically refers to the modeling of human language in other animal behaviors and systems.
  • Important nonhuman primates in animal language research include Washoe, Kanzi, and Koko
  • A major difference between human and animal language is that animals do not have the reasoning skills to understand syntax.
  • Many researchers doubt the significance of nonhuman primates learning sign language. Some suggest that it is simply due to operant conditioning or the researchers' perceptual set.

References

  1. J. W. Pilley. Chaser: Unlocking the genius of the dog who knows a thousand words. Houghton Mifflin. 2013.
  2. R. A. Gardner. "Review of sign language studies of cross-fostered chimpanzees." Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences. 93 (1). 2007.
  3. D. M. Rumbaugh. Language Learning by a Chimpanzee: The lana Project. Academic Press. 1977.
  4. David G. Myers and Nathan DeWall. Myers’ Psychology for AP Course. Worth. 2018.

Frequently Asked Questions about Animals and Language

Studies have shown that some dogs may in fact be able to understand a few words in the human language. Some nonhuman primates have been able to learn several words in American sign language (ASL).

A major difference between human and animal language is that animals do not have the reasoning skills to understand syntax. Also, humans can talk about things that are in their immediate environments.

Kanzi was a bonobo who had 354 words in his vocabulary and was the first nonhuman primate who could, reportedly, understand syntax in spoken English. The western lowland gorilla named Koko was able to learn more than 1,000 signs and could comprehend over 2,000 words from the English language.  

Animal language specifically refers to the modeling of human language in other animal behaviors and systems. Animal communication is usually strictly for evolutionary survival.

Four types of animal communication include auditory, visual, chemical, or touch-based cues.

Final Animals and Language Quiz

Question

____________ is the ability to think about another's mental state (i.e. I think that he thinks that I think)

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Answer

Theory of mind

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Question

What is required for animals to be capable of communication? 

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Answer

Theory of mind

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Question

Bees are known to communicate the location of food sources using complex _________.

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Answer

dances

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Question

Animal _________ specifically refers to the modeling of human language in other animal behaviors and systems.


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Answer

language

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Question

What was significant about Washoe?

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Answer

Potentially displayed creative combinations in vocabulary (i.e. water bird for swan)

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Question

Which nonhuman primate is known to, reportedly, understand syntax in spoken English?

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Answer

Kanzi

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Question

Which nonhuman primate learned more than 1,000 signs and could comprehend over 2,000 words from the English language.

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Answer

Koko

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Question

True or False? Human words must be learned and acquired culturally.

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Answer

True

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Question

True or False? Human communication is driven by the context in reaction to stimuli and cannot consider things outside their immediate environments. 

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Answer

False. Humans can talk about things that are in their immediate environments

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Question

Nonhuman primates have a ______________ which means they cannot combine sounds to produce new symbols.  

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Answer

 closed vocal system

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Question

What are metalingustics?

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Answer

Humans can discuss language itself.

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Question

Some critics suggest that when learning American sign language, nonhuman primates are actually engaging in ____________ in which hand symbols lead to a reward or positive reinforcement (i.e. food, toys). 

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Answer

operant conditioning

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Question

What is perceptual set and how is it realted to the interpretation of animal language research?

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Answer

A perceptual set refers to our tendancy to see what we want or expect to see. Another common criticism of research on animal language is that perhaps the researchers were simply seeing what they wanted to see.

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